October 2, 2007

Spotlight On Ted Leo & The Pharmacists

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Ted Leo is the coolest. Adam Sandler said in Billy Madison that peein’ your pants is the coolest, but he was wrong. It’s Ted Leo. Probably the most authentic guy in music, he writes what he believes and he writes it well, pairing eloquent lyrics that actually say something with music that rocks. Before embarking on the latest leg of his tour, Ted spoke to The Sun about, among other things, his songwriting approach and why Baby Boomers should shut their collective face. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

The Sun: You’ve said that there’s an arc to your music.
Ted Leo: Mm Hmm.
Sun: At least in terms of each album, because usually, except for this album [Living with the Living], you’ve written them together in one block, right?
T.L.: Yeah. For the most part, yeah.
Sun: Do you think there’s any sort of arc to your albums overall?
T.L.: Yeah. Absolutely. I think what I was talking about when I said that was probably more in that sense. I didn’t necessarily so much mean an arc as like they don’t stand alone as points. There’s definitely a line that goes from one to the next. And definitely in terms of songwriting, if you go back to the first Lookout [Records] record, it was very open and I was much more of a solo artist at that time. I didn’t really have a steady band so everything was a lot looser. I felt free to just mess around with a lot of different people and the songs reflect that, even in the music and not just the lyrics. And then by the time Hearts of Oak came around, I’d been playing with the band for a while and it was a little tighter. Then with Shake the Sheets, I actually wanted to take what I had learned from the previous couple of years of playing with a tight rock band and get it even tighter and make a more concise record. But after touring on that record for like two years, when I went into the studio to make a new one, I actually wanted to take a step back from that and go back to letting things be a little more free and open-ended and whatnot and not be so tight with my songwriting. So that’s what I think I meant by that. It’s not like these things pop up from a vacuum, like one day I get some idea for a record that’s got nothing to do with all of the ideas I’ve had that have come before.
Sun: Yeah. Your band, since you just mentioned them and how they affected Hearts of Oak, they’ve been somewhat of a rotating cast of characters, right?
T.L.: Well, no, not really. I mean, in some senses, yeah, but since Hearts of Oak, actually, since The Tyranny of Distance: Chris Wilson, the drummer and Dave Lerner, the bass player, played on Hearts of Oak, Shake the Sheets, and Living with the Living. And they started touring with me on the first tour that I did on Tyranny of Distance. So actually, the core of the band, until Dave left this past August, the core of the band was together for a little over six years. That’s actually pretty solid. It’s just that in terms of having more player play with us, there’s been a bit of rotation in that realm.
Sun: Do you ask people to come with you [to tour] after you’ve written and you decide what you need to be performing live with, or is it more that you want someone to start playing with you and then you write based on the people you think you’re going to have?
T.L.: When I first started touring with Dave and Chris, which was back in the spring of 2001, it was that I’d written and I said, “Hey, do you guys want to do this tour?” I still tend to write in a little bit of isolation, but I’d known that we were a band that whole time. Then, there have been times where we’ve had a keyboardist and another guitar player and a violin player, and that has all depended more on how we felt about whether we wanted to go forward as a more fleshed out band. From the era when — it was a little bit after Hearts of Oak — our keyboard player stopped playing with us, and we became a three-piece. And we got to really like being a three-piece. [Laughs] That’s reflective of how when it’s just the three of us, it’s a lot more tight and aggressive. It worked that way, especially for those songs. But the stuff that I wrote for the new record is, again, a little more fleshed out and a little broader. Actually, we have another guitar player now and it helps to have him along.
Sun: When you’re writing your lyrics, whether they be about politics or social issues or love or really anything, how explicit do you like to be about your feelings? How do you balance getting the idea across without being blatant or keeping it subtle without being secretive?
T.L.: Well I never want to be secretive, but there are certain types of songs — I’m not trying to create puzzles with my songs, but there are times when I want very much to be very explicit and say, “Look at this! Here it is. This is what I’m talking about.” And I talk about it, like an old hardcore song or something. It’s like, “I think this is bad! I think that is good. Period.” [Laughs] But usually the way that I think about things is rarely as … I get worked into a lather sometimes and get really pedantic about things in conversation, but most of the times that I’m thinking about things and conversing about things, nothing’s as cut and dry as that. So what I try to do when writing a song is just express my actual thought process on these things, which is often a lot more circumspect and often starts less with a specific point of policy that’s being debated in Congress or whatever and more with a question about what it means to the actual human beings. So that ends up that it’s rarely going to be super explicit and pedantic about something, but it’s also not meant to disguise what it’s actually about. It’s just that maybe there’s a story to tell as opposed to an outline to a power point presentation or something.
Sun: In that way, do you have any songs or references within your songs that you feel are frequently misunderstood?
T.L.: Oh yeah. Often. Actually I was just talking to another interviewer who said that he thought [laughs] that the Shake the Sheets record was really not very political. I was like, “Really?!” and he was like, “Yeah, well it seems like there’s a lot of songs about drug abuse.” [Laughs] WHAT?! I’d never heard that before! There’s not a single song or reference on that record that’s about drug abuse at all! Obviously everybody’s free to have their own interpretations about things, but that’s why I’m a musician and not a politician. My songs are open to interpretation. I’m not trying to run for office.
Sun: Are there any songs that you specifically like to keep mum about the meanings for, or that you don’t like to talk about what inspired you to write them?
T.L.: It always depends on the context. There might be something that I’d be happy to broadcast what it’s about. There are other things I would rather … it would be even hard to do that because there are not like, sound-bite meanings. So sometimes it would require a lot more conversation. But there are very few things that I’ve written that I think are better, or work better for everyone, if what I was really thinking about is kept a little close to the nest. There certainly are a few, and that’s because I want them to be open to interpretation. I want people who get exactly what I was thinking about to get it, and I want people who might get other things from it to be able to get those things from it.
Sun; You’ve mentioned that you have some fans that you’ve spoken to on occasion that have told you they love the music but they don’t agree with the politics on some songs, or your stances on religion with a song like “Born on Christmas Day.” How often does this happen? Are there more frequent differences of opinion on some topics than others?
T.L.: It doesn’t happen that often, and it only happens in kind of the obvious way that you just mentioned, with the topics that you just mentioned. I have to say that I’m a little flattered when somebody who might have a serious disagreement with some of my opinions on things can still take my music and get something from it.
Sun: Since your music is some of the only consistently topical and political music that I can get my hands on these days, at least within the (excuse the oxy moron) indie mainstream. What do you think of the other bands that are coming out in Bush’s last year with anti-Bush sentiments on their albums? Is it justifiable lag time between writing and recording or are they just late to the game?
T.L.: [Laughs] At the risk of putting myself at odds with some people, I’ll say they’re really late to the game. I’ll say that our fucking country’s been really late to the game. That’s why we’ve had him in office for eight years. [Laughs] It’s almost like its not even worth it to get hung up on that because that’s like negative space in which to put your energy. If you feel like you’ve got to speak out about something, then you’ve got to speak out about it, and it’s a rare occasion that I think it’s worth chastising someone else within the realm of popular music. I mean obviously if there were like fascist police squads banging down doors around here, [laughs] you’d want to knock people back into some sense of reality, “You’ve got to say something about this!” But with the context that we’re talking about, popular music, I feel like its important, and I certainly feel like a lot of the country in all realms of life have been really late to the game in this regard, but I feel like my job is just to keep doing what I need to do.
Sun: What was your writing background was before you started writing songs, if you had one. Had you ever written poetry or stories or even in a journal or anything, or was music your first writing outlet?
T.L.: I think it kind of was my first writing outlet. I spent some time in school as someone who’s more into the literature side of things than other things, so I did a lot of school writing in college, but no actual artistic output of my own. Other than keeping a journal and that type of stuff, it started and has remained in the realm of songwriting. I definitely don’t consider myself a poet. I do consider myself a lyricist. It’s like I try to make sure that you can read my lyrics without the music and go, “Oh that’s cool,” or whatever, but you’re still supposed to know that they’re lyrics to a song and not from a poetry book.
Sun: When you’re writing a song, do you crank out the bulk of it at once or piece things together over time?
T.L.: I usually crank out the bulk of it at once, and then edit it over time. Sometimes I just bang a song out and then I’m like, “Oh shit! That’s it! It’s done!” and then other times I’ll finish it and then I’ll edit it pretty quickly. But then I’ve had songs that have been kinda hanging around for like years literally, and I’ll finally revisit them two years later and go, “Aha! That’s what I needed to do there!” or something.
Sun: Since your brothers are really musical as well, what was the background in your family that produced a trio of singer-songwriter musicians?
T.L.: Yeah, I don’t know. Neither of my parents were involved in music. They didn’t push us — we all took piano lessons when we were really little kids, but I stopped that when I was ten and I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 17. I don’t really know. I will say that I think that my parents, had they been given encouragement or opportunities to get involved with music, they very well may have shown a talent for it because music was always present when I was growing up. My parents loved and still love music and some of the first stuff that I got into was in their record collection: the Beatles, the Who, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan. It was always there. The radio was always on; the records were always on, and I suppose in some ways that had to contribute to our interest in it.
Sun: Performing as much as you do, and playing so many songs that are meant to have a message, how do you find yourself reacting to playing your own music night after night? Do the messages get you amped? Do they sometimes depress you? Do you ever feel numb to them and sort of forget what they mean for a while? Do they take on new meaning after time? How does that affect your music for you, to be playing it so often?
T.L.: It’s a really good question and the conventional wisdom is that you would get sick of it, you would get numb to it, but I haven’t really found that to be the case. There are times when before we go onstage, I’ll be looking at my set list and I’ll go, “Oh boy, I guess we gotta play ‘Me and Mia’ again. I guess we gotta play ‘Where Have the Rude Boys Gone’ again.” And it’s not the most exciting prospect for me at that point, but I gotta say that once we’re onstage and we’re actually with the audience, honestly, I usually do get amped up by those songs. Once we start playing, I don’t think that I’ve ever had a moment when I’ve been detached from the songs in such a way that I become numb to it. Now, having said that, they do kind of take on different meanings and I react differently to them from time to time. We actually have a lot of songs that are in some ways kind of like pep talks about exactly that: trying to get through the struggles that we all have to go through, and at the risk of sounding cheesy, [laughs] there are certainly times when I’m onstage when I’m like, “I’m probably singing more to myself than to anybody else in the room,” at that point. [Laughs]
Sun: I got to see your spot on Human Giant, and also your promo on FunnyorDie.com. How often do you get to promote yourself comically like this? Are these times where you get to flex your comedic muscle and it feels like something refreshing for you to do?
T.L.: [Laughs] It’s rare. That’s probably why I talk so much at the beginning of songs, I think and why I get yelled at by my bandmates. [Laughs] Everybody in my band is really funny, and we spend all day just riffing at and with each other, and I try to carry that spirit onstage I guess, but I don’t really get asked to do acting or anything like that.
Sun: I saw your very harsh review of Across the Universe, whatever clips that you had seen, and as a huge Beatles fan I really need to know why you hated it so much so that I can protect myself.
T.L.: [Laughs] Well, it’s precisely because — I’ll try to make this as short as possible and I’ll start at the beginning.
Sun: [Laughs]
T.L.: First of all, I am so unbelievably sick of having Baby Boomer culture crammed down my throat to the nth degree. In this time that we need real protest, it’s bad enough that all we keep hearing is [makes old man voice impression] “Things were so much different in the 60s! Blah blah blah blah blah!” By the time it goes so far down the line of reiterations of baby boomer nostalgia that we get to the point where half of Broadway is taken up by these fucking musicals where you take a band’s songs and string them together with some really thin narrative and its Movin’ Out!! The Billy Joel Musical!! It’s the Beach Boys! And blah blah … That’s bad enough, okay. I was already really sickened about that. But then to do that to the Beatles?! It’s just unbelievable. It drives me up the wall. And it looks crappy. I mean, come on! The main guy’s name is Jude? Oh boy. Could you have put 30 seconds more thought into that? So obviously we’re going to have a big emotional scene in the movie where somebody walks up to Jude and starts going, [sings] “Heeeyyy Jude.” [Laughs] It’s just like for God’s sake, can we A. move on from this and B. can we not fuck the Beatles’ corpse another time? Can we please just leave them be? I love the Beatles too, and I really hate to see it dignified in this way.

Ted Leo and his Pharmacists will be performing at Revolution Hall in Troy, NY, on October 4th and the Mod Club Theatre in Toronto, ON, on October 6th. Their latest album, Living with the Living, is available on iTunes and Amazon and many other music outlets.